The Red Special guitar is the probably one of the best made at home projects ever, and it has quite the history being over 40 years.
For those who have been fortunate to look at the original guitar, they will know that it was homemade and also made with household items, hand tools and equipment. This came about due to the cost of instruments in the 60's, with Brian not being able to afford the latest Fender or Gibson guitars. This inspired himself and his father to create this legendary instrument.
As mentioned anything that was available in the house! The neck is an old 200 year old mahogany mantle piece, which had some wood worm and the holes were filled with matchsticks. The neck was hand-carved with a pen knife so rumour has it, which may explain why it's so thick.
The fingerboard was oak, painted black, with mother of pearl inlays made from mother of pearl buttons, from his mothers sewing box.
The body was made various woods from household furniture, including pine core block-board which is quite light and strong. This, as I call it, were the wings of the guitar which were hollowed out in to acoustic pockets or resonance chambers. Block-board is not a strong material, so oak from an old table was used as a central core of the guitar where the neck, bridge and tremolo are mounted to.
This was covered with mahogany veneer and had a white bound edges which came from some shelf edging. This was stained with some mahogany dyes, giving it a brown / reddish colour. This was all finished with Rustin's plastic coating.
Once again, handmade, but you have to admire the workmanship of Harold and Brian May way ahead of their time, creating a frictionless tremolo and bridge system, which stayed in tune which was pretty unique for it's time.
The tremolo was handmade out of mild steel which is hardened, and rocks on a knife edge, balanced with 2x motorbike valve springs from a Panther 1928 motor cycle from what we understand. The tremolo arm was made from a saddle bag holder from a bike, silver soldered in to a brass swivel, and topped off with Brian's mothers knitting needle for a tremolo arm tip, which was most likely hand turned. Unlike most tremolos of the time, it also stayed in tune!
The bridge is made from aluminium blocks with slots made in the top with a saw for intonation slots. In the centre there is a 5mm wide channel probably made with a needle file. The rollers are one piece stainless steel 3mm diameter, probably turned on a hand drill with a file, to create the shape and groove for the string.
The control knobs were made by Brian made from aluminium - they have had changes over the years, in terms of fixing and indication markers and now sporting a red dot on both tone and volume.
Not content with making their own guitar and tremolo, Brian worked out how to make his own pickups. These sounded quite good but there was a slight problem due to the magnets. The resulting sound whilst bending resulted in a rustling noise when the string was bent, this was down to the polarity of the pickups :- North - South - North - South - North - South; instead of North - North - North - North - North - North.
These only lasted a short time before being replaced after spending three guineas at the Burns shop in St. Giles´ Circus. Brian became the proud owner of a set of the fabled metal cased Burns Tri-sonics. The coils were potted in Araldite epoxy to help reduce their microphonic tendencies. Next the pickups were direct mounted to the body.
You can see some specs of the original pickups on this short piece taken from The Magic Years Volume 2. In an interview with Brian and his father Harold, you can even see the original pickups on the table next to the guitar.
The next unique part to this guitar was its sound range. Due to a cleaver switching arrangement, the 2 way white switches were wired in series, adding to the warm sound, and being able to switch them in and out of phase. These switches are mounted to an aluminium shelf under the scratch plate. The 220k pots, which are matched to 237k (recently replaced with Bourns/CTS mini pots 250k (matched at 237K) which are mounted lower down on a second shelf.
There also used to be a fuzz box fitted to the guitar but was later removed, leaving a hole on the scratch plate just above the switches. This was covered by a small red dot, then tape, and then after restoration a Mother of pearl inlay fitted by Greg Fryer during restoration in 96/98.
The Red Special name came from the colour which was a reddish-brown which it was stained. After this the guitar was finished with a two part lacquer called Rustin's Plastic Coating. The Overall amount Brian spent on his guitar was £17.50.
A great source of information, x-rays, drawings and photos are now available in the form of a new hardback book; Brian May's Red Special by Simon Bradley. It may not be as detailed as we would have hoped but still a very good source of information. You can find a copy in all good bookshops and online through Amazon.
After being gigged for most of its life, the Red Special was in need of a serious overhaul, Brian has only ever had one custom backup guitar which was the John Birch replica, which was recently found and put back together by Andrew Guyton.
Using the Guild replicas as backup guitars, Brian never felt at one with the replicas. In 1996 Brian may received a letter from a luither named Greg Fryer from Australia claiming he could build an accurate copy of Brian's old lady, the Red Special. This was done in 1996, building 3 replicas called 'John', 'Paul', and 'George'. After seeing the replicas, Brian decided to let Greg fryer restore his original guitar.
Brian took wo of the replicas, 'John' and 'George', as he was due to tour. These replaced the Red Special while the old lady underwent its restoration. The restoration started in 1997 / 98 and involved using as much original time-period specific material as possible. Damaged veneer on the rear of the guitar which was cause by Brian's belt buckle was removed, and new pieces of veneer scarfed in. The binding was removed, and various dings and dents were repaired. The restoration was very detailed; in terms of repair and restoration, the pick guard also received attention where there was a crack close to the bridge. The hole left by the fuzz box was repaired by inserting a Mother of pearl star which is Brian's trademark if you like.
The refinishing of the Red Special was undertaken in the UK. This came about when a fellow Red Special enthusiast Mark Reynolds contacted Brian by letter with photo's of his replica he had built, and got a reply from Greg Fryer asking if he fancied helping with the restoration. Mark assisted with the Pickup surrounds, and in the end use of his stepfather’s spray painting booth at Leicester. This proved to be perfect for the job.
You can see in detail the work done by Greg Fryer on his website which includes great detailed pictures from the Greg, and also some photos of his builds of John, Paul, and George.
At the end of the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour in 2005, Brian again had several revisions / updates made to his Red Special, including having the zero fret replaced for the first time (It was judged that it didn't need a change at the 1998 overhaul) and also making a larger opening for a new style open jack. Despite all this work, all the original frets remain original and have not been changed in its 40 year life, some are wearing thin but still have not been replaced.
Prior to going on tour with Queen + Adam Lambert, the Red Special was again starting to look a bit tired. The damage on the fingerboard had returned, requiring a new zero fret which was done previously ten years ago, and also one of the mother of pearl markers. The finish requiring attention with it splitting on the rear of the guitar, and being held together at the time with Gaffa tape. The repair was to be done in a three week window, and completed by Andrew Guyton.
You can read more on Andrew Guyton's blog.
And you can also see a before restoration video on his YouTube channel with a full mini documentary to follow which is almost an hour long: